Ahmad al-Assir and Lebanon’s Despondent Sunnis

Assir has been even more successful in reinforcing a Shia mindset that simply wants the state to deal with him. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Ibrahim al-Amin

Published Monday, March 4, 2013

Lebanese Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s popularity has not grown sufficiently to instill terror in his carefully chosen enemies. But others are still frightened of him, for two main reasons.

First, because there are no political or other restraints on his behavior. He could easily trigger a repeat of last November’s bloody confrontation in the Taamir district in which three young men were killed.

Second, because a majority of his Sunni sect, which he says he is defending, do not renounce him, and he is welcomed by Hezbollah’s Shia detractors and by most groups in the March 14 coalition.

Everyone is now preoccupied with what politicians like to call the “Assir phenomenon.” All treat it as though it is confined to a single geographical patch and some specific individuals. While state agencies busy themselves with security and practical arrangements aimed at preventing any outburst, the political players keep count of his actions’ consequences.

Assir has certainly succeeded in provoking the grassroots of Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). He has been even more successful in reinforcing a Shia mindset that simply wants the state to deal with him. Either way, those demanding the containment of Assir assume that once contained, the followers who have gathered around him will disperse.

In the March 14 camp, different considerations are at play. Alarmbells began ringing in the Future Movement after it became apparent that Assir was drawing many supporters away from the Hariri family.

This happened not only in Saida, but extended to Beirut. It made the Hariri family genuinely afraid of him, and rightly so. Pictures of Assir’s rallies show his appeal among the youth, while Future Movement events are increasingly attended by ageing employees.

This prompted the Hariri family to search for a solution. They imagined they could whisper to the state and its institutions their desire to stifle Assir. The solution, in their view, is that Assir could be pushed into provoking a suicidal confrontation with Hezbollah. This would get rid of him, and also create a new problem for Hezbollah among Sunnis.

Because of the unpredictability of both Assir and the state’s behavior, there are fears of a civil explosion that could unleash a wave of sectarian and confessional insanity in the country.

Nevertheless, some points need to be made to Assir, Hezbollah, the state, and the various local and foreign players who are involved in this affair.

First, the Sunni public that embraces Assir is expressing its disillusion with a succession of self-styled communal leaders, above all the leadership of the Hariri family.

Second, while this same public sees Assir as its spokesperson, it is for the most part not prepared to accept him as its leader.

Third, the military and security establishments should appreciate that local Lebanese circumstances necessitate a change in behavior. The Trade Union Coordinating Committee showed how a cross-regional and cross-confessional group could be created without being pushed by a political party or program.

Similarly, the military and security establishments could demonstrate the authorities’ ability to forestall any civil explosion without needing a political directive.

Fourth, Hezbollah needs to make a frank and unprejudiced assessment of the deep causes of the Sunni despondency that currently prevails. This feeling persists due to successive setbacks, and has to do with clear Shia preeminence, whether at the level of the state (Iran versus the GCC states), of organized protest movements (Bahraini versus Syrian), or of active popular forces (Hezbollah versus al-Qaida and its offshoots).

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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